For those who haven't heard it yet, a ground worker stole a Q400 at SeaTac this week, performing an unauthorized takeoff and going for a joyride before eventually crashing into an island. The plane was empty and fueled at the time of departure.

My questions are:

  1. How easy/hard would it have been for this mechanic to get on this aircraft alone and take-off without assistance or authorization?

  2. What precautions are in place to prevent something like this?

  3. And if I may ask a speculative question, what do people familiar with airport operations think will change as a result of this incident?

This is not a duplicate of this question because I'm asking about a) insiders who already have access to the aircraft, and b) large/transport aircraft like airliners.

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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of What stops planes from being stolen? $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Aug 11, 2018 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think it's a duplicate. The linked question is mainly about GA aircraft, so the answers don't really apply to this incident. Also, a mechanic working on an aircraft would have full access to it anyway, so precautions about keeping out unauthorized personnel don't apply. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hulme
    Aug 11, 2018 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ Also related: Do planes have keys? $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Aug 11, 2018 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ Just as note and illustrating perhaps the difficulty of developing protocols to prevent this type of thing, the Q400 has air stairs that fold out of the aircraft, so there would be no pushing back of a staircase. Also, mechanics accessing the aircraft through these stairs and starting engines for maintenance purposes is normal. Also, you wouldn't need to reach the runway to takeoff. A taxiway would do. Indeed, at Seatac, portions of the ramp are probably long enough to allow takeoff of an empty Q400. Note also that mechanics are frequently certified to taxi aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Aug 11, 2018 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ I simplified your wording to focus on the differences from the other question, and I also removed references to "hijacking", because this was a case of theft. If my changes don't match what you're asking then of course please feel free to roll back or edit further. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Aug 11, 2018 at 18:46

4 Answers 4


As an aircraft mechanic at a major airline, I think I can answer this pretty well.

  1. It wouldn’t be hard at all. All I have to do is wait for an aircraft move. This could be to bring a plane into the hangar or just to move it from one gate to another. I could simply volunteer to taxi the aircraft, which wouldn’t be unusual at all. At my airport, we have to cross an active taxiway and runway to do this sort of thing. We do it weekly, if not daily. I’d request fuel (if needed), and instead of proceeding across the active runway, I’d just hang a right and throttle up. By the time anyone knew what was going on, I’d be airborne.

  2. There aren’t really many precautions to prevent this. Nor are there a lot of precautions preventing me from, say, throwing a bunch of screws into an engine or chopping a wire bundle in half. The truth is that I pretty much have carte blanche access to the airplane.

  3. What will be done? Probably nothing. The efficacy of airport security is about what you’d expect from a $12/hour job. The focus is on making sure you don’t have a large tube of toothpaste, not whether I’m going to steal an aircraft. Most mechanics have often joked about how easy it would be to “steal” an aircraft. I’m so familiar with airport procedures and policies that even if you prohibited me from doing A, B, and C, I could simply do X, Y and Z. I am a mechanic after all. My job is to think outside the box with respect to “my” aircraft as well as to think about policies and procedures we have in place. I’m probably more lawyer than mechanic. I can find a loophole in everything long before security ever will.

Furthermore, we do a really good job at policing ourselves. My coworkers and I are like brothers (and sisters). We know when someone has an alcohol problem, a marital problem, a debt problem, etc. security is just focused on the four seconds they see you. As long as you’re not acting extremely strange, and you don’t have a weapon, they’re as good as useless.

Is it possible for this to happen? Sure. But, I wouldn’t bet on it being a new way for down and out aircraft mechanics to end their lives.

EDIT: Since my original answer, the media has reported that the person in question was a ground servicing agent. I think this is an interesting twist as, where I work, most of these agents do not come from an Airframe & Powerplant background. Even the ones that do generally don't have a background on the same fleet types. They may know how to do some things in the cockpit, such as operate the fuel panel, but most of them are not familiar with all of the controls.

I suppose anybody could download a flight simulator game and learn these things, to some extent, but there's still enough going on that it would be sufficiently difficult, if not very slow, to figure out how to do things like starting an engine (which generally requires starting the APU), release the parking brake, steer with the tiller, etc...

That said, I have heard of some airlines allowing these ground service agents to tow the aircraft. That would require knowledge of starting the APU, releasing the parking brake, etc. To my knowledge, none of them are allowed to taxi, so there's still the "problem" of starting the engines. That said, it's not like starting engines is really a big deal, it's just that it's another delay in the process. I'm going to go out on a limb and take a stab that he has had some prior "higher capacity" experience with planes before this ground servicing job.

I'd also like to note that now that I think about it: when I see planes being pushed back on the ramp, their engines starting, and them taxiing out, I rarely give it a second thought. It is literally not something I would even question. You just assume the people up there are qualified, know what they're doing, and you just go about your day.

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    $\begingroup$ @RogUE It depends. If I called for a standard “ramp load” to keep weight on the aircraft while it was going to sit at the gate over the weekend, say, I’d have plenty to get quite far. Maybe several hours flight time at least? Roughly 30,000 pounds or so on a 767. $\endgroup$
    – Frank
    Aug 12, 2018 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JonasG.Drange Yes. There are a lot of operational checks we have to perform with the engines running. A lot of the time, we have to take engines to max power to do this. We usually can’t do it at the gate, so we have to take it to an apron to bring them up. There are a lot of reasons and needs for us to have run and taxi. $\endgroup$
    – Frank
    Aug 13, 2018 at 7:13
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    $\begingroup$ +1 You just hire capable people who you trust. I'm surprised why people are surprised by this. This is basically how all industries work. I could go and drop the database of my company right now, but I'm not going to, I'm going to procrastinate and read aviation.se instead. $\endgroup$ Aug 13, 2018 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ @UKMonkey I DO work in pairs probably 90% of the time as a matter of safety. If I fall, I like having someone to put all my safety gear on the ground around me so my spouse gets the full payout. :-) That said, there are times where I’m alone. Say my partner and I are checking wires. One end is in the nose and one in the tail. My partner goes to the back, I stay up front. Now we’re both alone. What do we do? Call for 2 more people to babysit us to make sure we don’t do something malicious? All because one guy in one million did something stupid? $\endgroup$
    – Frank
    Aug 13, 2018 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ @UKMonkey I don’t think you sufficiently understand the industry to really realize the magnitude and scale of what you’re proposing. Furthermore, the disruption of ordinary maintenance tasks would probably create more “missteps” of purposeful maintenance performed. Trust me, you really don’t want me in the middle of a critical flight control rig, stopping with a few cotter pins missing, just so I can call for my babysitter. The odds of forgetting critical steps amplify with each distraction. $\endgroup$
    – Frank
    Aug 13, 2018 at 9:42

You can probably guess - none. Like most industries, aviation relies on an assumption of good faith from the employees. The incessant string of terrorist attacks throughout this century changed some things, but the focus is squarely on protecting commercial flights with passengers aboard.

Traditionally, the protection against joyrides was that a civilian wouldn't have any idea where to begin operating a commercial aircraft. This is clearly not the case with a rogue pilot or a self-flight-educated mechanic.

Is it possible to protect against this? The IT security industry has come up with a "Zero Trust" concept, which models everyone as an opportunistic attacker. The DoD uses a "need to know" principle for restricted information, and presidents have been denied access. Corporate ERP systems pigeonhole every user into a role only able to make specific structured decisions.

Applying these principles together, you could go as far as to require a MAC-signed work order to activate any system, pilot ID and HQ-signed flight plan to start the engines, and positive confirmation from ATC to release the brakes, apply TO thrust, or change navpoints.

Would it work? As the three examples above have proven, only partially. You also have to consider the consequences of a fault locking out a legitimate pilot. At this point, inside jobs in aviation are a rare enough event that such measures aren't deemed worth the inevitable slowdown and expense.

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    $\begingroup$ And why don't they implement such security measures? Simply because such events are so incredibly rare that they had no reason to. If several such incidents start happening, they would find out something against them, but until then... it's just like how the Spartans had no law against murdering one's father, because it never ever happened in their city. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Aug 12, 2018 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz Exactly. Another problem with access control is the consequences if it glitches, e.g. locks out the second pilot while the PIC is incapacitated? Though there is one special case - to the extent that ICBM can be considered technically aircraft... $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Aug 12, 2018 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ The difference between computer security and aviation security, with respect to this scenario, is that a hacker doesn’t often face death if he/she hijacks a computer. For someone who hijacks an airplane, death is a pretty likely outcome. If you get near a civilian population, they’ll shoot you down. Most likely, you’ll just crash. Near certain death is usually a good deterrent. $\endgroup$
    – Frank
    Aug 12, 2018 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Frank : also, the hacker doesn't often face the danger of being detected, especially if hacking from a foreign country, from a stolen computer, from the internet connection of someone else (like the unsecured wireless network of someone across the street). Hijacking an airplane cannot be done while staying invisible. It also needs physical access, while in computer security, a computer on the Internet is often accessible from every other computer on the entire planet, drastically increasing the number of people who can make an attempt. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Aug 13, 2018 at 5:10

After the Germanwings 9525 crash most airlines introduced (if not already in place) procedures that when the airplane is in flight there have to be always 2 persons in the cockpit. I could imagine that either procedures like this are extended to all ground operations (which wouldn't have stopped this guy, it would've been just another violation of rules) or that future avionics require some proof that a crew of 2 is on a plane before it's allowed to start when on ground. This could for example being done by requiring two buttons very far away in the cockpit be pressed simultaneously for the avionics to start or so.

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    $\begingroup$ “Bad guys” would still be able to steal an aircraft. You just need two of them. $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2018 at 4:14
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    $\begingroup$ I’m a mechanic... Put an extra switch in the cockpit and I’ll bypass it with jumper wires I keep in my toolbox. Question me? I’ll just say I found “something wrong.” $\endgroup$
    – Frank
    Aug 12, 2018 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ My experience in videogames has taught me that all you need to bypass a button check for two persons is to use a portable wormhole generator. Although I guess that there's not enough space in a cockpit to cut out a 2x1m ellipse of spacetime from... $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2018 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak You could also glue the button in place or bypass it completely. A bit more low-tech than your solution, but works just as well and is a lot easier to pull off in a constricted space. $\endgroup$
    – Mast
    Aug 13, 2018 at 8:06
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    $\begingroup$ @CrossRoads So... Plane lands and is barreling down the runway. Another plane mistakenly enters the runway from another taxiway. There's a chance, if they throttle up, that they'll be able to take back off. The captain reaches down to throttle up. The first officer's hands are on the flap control lever; the other one slips off the sensor. In this haste, the conditions aren't met. The engines refuse to advance. Plane A collides into Plane B. Many dead. Next question on Aviation Stack Exchange: "Whose Bright Ideas Was It To Put Fingerprint Sensors on Planes!?" $\endgroup$
    – Frank
    Aug 15, 2018 at 9:09

I think that the main stopping factor is that all important parts are numbered and largely worthless without various documents that must come with them, documenting they history. Hence you cannot land in a lone island middle of the ocean and then sell engines on E-bay for easy money. This eliminates reasons for the typical, usual theft.

If one would be able to get into hands at least half of these $41.7 million for a good as new Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 (and there are two on the plane!), somebody might decide not to care about the lost job or even homeland for this money.

  • $\begingroup$ This makes me wonder about the prospect for insurance fraud. Small operator gets employee to "steal" plane to get insurance payout. Although you still run into the same issue unless the insurance payout is greater than the value of the airplane or you do manage to sell it on the black market. $\endgroup$
    – jdude97
    Aug 14, 2018 at 20:31

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